This year my company added sexual harassment training to its portfolio of leadership and communication training. I’ve heard many jokes from people as a result of this endeavor…

“Well, it’s good to be in a growth industry.”

“Sexual harassment training… does that mean you’re teaching people how to do it?”

I even got a Christmas card from a friend with a cartoon of a man coming to the office holiday party wheeling a tall IV pole outfitted with dangling mistletoe… which is countered with a woman pulling a cart of pepper spray. Funny.

To be clear, I’m not trying to make light of a serious topic; however, it is also one that we need to be less afraid of talking about in a very real-world, practical, every day kind of way.

I would comfortably bet that 99.99 percent of you reading this article have attended a sexual harassment class in your day. I would also bet that 91.36 percent of you did not particularly enjoy it. But more companies are mandating some form of sexual harassment training for their people as they see executives toppling over sexual misconduct charges. The motivation for the training may be as a “CYA” exercise, out of a feeling of moral obligation or because they don’t want to fall to the same fate as companies who have watched their stock prices tumble because of really bad behavior.

Whatever the reason, if you’re going to make the investment of financial resources and labor hours while suffering through the logistics of scheduling mandatory training, you might as well get the greatest bang for your buck. (OK, not the best metaphor to use when discussing sexual harassment, but you get the point.)

When we shop for management skills training, we want the content to be practical and applicable and the facilitators to be engaging and interactive; but sexual harassment training… well, we might be tempted to fall back on old-school thinking that the best training means a lengthy discourse on the difference between quid pro quo and hostile work environment. (Don’t get me wrong; training of this sort should be reviewed and blessed by your corporate attorney.) Back in the day, I had to deliver the version that leaned heavily on legal language and scare tactics. I didn’t enjoy delivering it and, gauging by the number of eye rolls and head bobs, the participants didn’t much like sitting through it. More importantly, I’m not sure how much they actually got out of it.

Instead, let’s think of sexual harassment training for management employees as another branch of leadership training. After all, there are common themes that apply:

  • That creating a positive and respectful work environment helps prevent harassment in the first place;
  • That effective and open communication makes it easier for people to come forward and talk to their leaders if they feel they are being harassed;
  • That following through when an employee comes to you with a problem (harassment or otherwise) leads to greater engagement and loyalty; and
  • That it takes managerial courage to coach, counsel and discipline people when they don’t get it.

And, let’s make the training engaging and real-world:

  • Encourage open discussions about what they think is OK and not-OK behavior. For example, just ask a group to vote on whether they think it’s OK to hug people who work for them or if they think it’s OK to comment on someone’s appearance… and see how much discussion that generates!
  • Discuss the difference between inappropriate behavior and illegal behavior and all the gray areas in between. Some actions will get an employee in trouble, some will get them on unemployment… some will get them in court.
  • Make sure the facilitator understands the idiosyncrasies of our business. For example, that sometimes customers throw chips down cocktail servers tops or that night shift, having fewer management eyes around, doesn’t always bring out the best in people. And that sometimes we have to enact some “progressive discipline” on our customers.

And yes, we need to communicate that there are consequences for leaders who do not take claims of sexual harassment seriously.

Sexual harassment training for your management team doesn’t have to be intimidating or boring. Expect it to be informative, applicable and engaging so that your leaders will truly learn how to protect your employees and your company from the harmful results that come from disrespectful acts in the workplace.